Evidence-based development of a strategy for Canadian apparel SMEs

The Canadian apparel industry has long been challenged by imports from low-wage countries while its exports have declined since their height in 2002. This situation was exacerbated with trade liberalisation, which started in January 2005. Data from Industry Canada and a number of studies, amongst which those of the Apparel Human Resources Council (AHRC), showing the adverse effects of trade liberalisation since the phasing out of the multi-fibre agreement in 2005, the lack of competitive advantage for Canada as an apparel manufacturing nation and the subsequent rapid decline of its apparel industry, pointed to the need for a strategic response from the Canadian apparel industry, particularly from small to medium-sized enterprises. A study conducted for the AHRC of the Federal Government of Canada outlined a number of strategies that Canadian apparel companies could pursue, focusing on elements other than manufacturing in the traditional apparel value chain. These strategies seemed to suggest the implementation of a cluster approach where greater cooperation between suppliers would be required throughout the supply chain with a focus on functional expertise and relationships. The purpose of this paper is to determine whether a cluster strategy is being applied or if indeed it is applicable to Canada’s apparel companies. Design/methodology/approach – A literature search, was undertaken to find the options available for the organisation of SMEs so that: an analytical framework could be created from the various theories and concepts that; would enable the evidence-based selection of an option or options suitable for adoption by Canadian apparel SMEs, to assist them to be more effective than stand-alone enterprises. Data were collected from case studies of Canadian apparel companies, an Experience Survey (conducted through face-to-face interviews with the directors of the AHRC, the Canadian Apparel Federation, Industry Canada, and Canadian retail and apparel supply executives) and from the responses to an online questionnaire sent to Canadian apparel suppliers. The data were subjected to examination using the analytical framework to determine whether the evidence existed on which to base a cluster-based strategic response to competition from overseas apparel suppliers, or whether one of the alternative options might be a more suitable match with the Canadian apparel business environment. Findings – Neither the case studies nor the Experience Survey revealed sufficient evidence of open communication or of cooperation among suppliers in areas that would fortify horizontal clustering amongst apparel SMEs, such as the sharing of labour, market research or supply chain management; similar findings emerged from the online questionnaire sent to Canadian apparel suppliers, which showed little evidence favouring cluster development as a strategic response for the Canadian apparel supply industry. The research also showed that industrialists, experts and government advisors all recognised that, beginning with trade liberalisation in 2005, there had been a transformation of the Canadian apparel industry from a manufacturing to a service industry with the retailers taking much stronger control of the supply chain than before, which, taken together with the lack of open communication or cooperation among apparel suppliers gives rise to conditions which favour collaboration over clustering. Originality/value – The paper provides a firm evidence base upon which to develop a different strategy for Canadian SMEs than the cluster approach that has been proposed to date. The findings reported in this paper show that Canadian apparel industry leaders, government and industry-led support organisations, retailers and suppliers all recognise that the type of open communication or of cooperation among suppliers in areas that would fortify horizontal clustering amongst apparel SMEs, such as the sharing of labour, market research or supply chain management does not occur to a sufficient extent to support the adoption of a cluster strategy by the Canadian apparel sector (although it may be applicable in Quebec). Canadian retailers have now taken the leading role in the supplier/retailer relationship. Any future strategy will need to take account of this repositioning of retailers and be centred upon vertical relationships between individual apparel suppliers and retailers.

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